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The following article appears in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine on newsstands now.
Even before the movie screened on Jan. 24, the carnival had begun. On a typically frigid afternoon, three hours before Kevin Smith‘s Red State would have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, hate-mongering foot soldiers from Fred Phelps‘ Westboro Baptist Church faced off against an assortment of moviegoers — including many Park City-area high school students — who responded with a full-volume, taunting rendition of Katy Perry‘s “I Kissed a Girl.”
Smith and his associates had orchestrated the encounter, encouraging supporters to turn out on his behalf. But in theory, at least, Smith also was prepared to conduct business. The plan, supposedly, was that he’d auction off Red State — a $4 million comic horror film centering on a hate-mongering preacher who consigns gays to hell — after the screening. A clutch of prospective buyers, including longtime Smith patron Harvey Weinstein, showed up to check out Smith’s wares.
But after the credits rolled, Smith stood before the crowd of about 1,100 and launched into a 20-minute harangue about the movie business, pausing in the midst to sell the movie to himself for $20.
“I never wanted to know jack shit about business,” Smith said. “Ladies and gentleman, I’m a fat, masturbating stoner. … If somebody told me all the stupid, horseshit, soul-killing, uncreative, backwards-ass bullshit business that I now have in my head … It’s too much f—in’ horseshit.”
Smith complained about laboring over films made on tiny budgets, only to watch a distributor spend “a shit-ton of money” on marketing. “And then I never see anything,” he said. “Nobody ever sees any money, ever again.” Smith said his 1994 film Clerks — made for $27,575 — took seven years to turn a profit. “I wouldn’t try Clerks today,” he said. “Because it’s impenetrable. Even if you’re lucky enough to make a movie, how are you going to open a movie?”
To prospective buyers who were missing the New York Jets’ playoff game to attend the Red State screening, only to hear Smith dismiss the idea of “selling [the movie] to some jackass,” neither the rant nor the phony auction was amusing. It seemed Smith had poured a liberal dose of gasoline on a pile of indie-film relationships and lit a match, and some observers took it as a sign that Smith might finally be imploding.
But at the same time, Smith’s monologue, posted promptly on YouTube, was reminiscent of the ramblings of the disillusioned attorney played by Tom Wilkinson in the 2007 thriller Michael Clayton: Was he nuts, or was he maybe on to something?
Although he seemed to choose his words with care, festival director John Cooper stuck up for Smith. “My job is to support the filmmakers in any way possible during their time here,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Hollywood Reporter. Smith’s ploy — and his plan to take the film on a city-by-city tour — could be “genius,” Cooper said. But he added that members of Smith’s team, including his longtime attorney and veteran film-seller John Sloss, “know what they are doing … and the risks they are taking.”
By now, the story of how Smith took Clerks to Sundance and sold it to Miramax in 1994, kicking off a long relationship with the Weinstein brothers, is well known by movie fans generally and Smith’s devoted followers in particular. Little about Smith is not known to those who desire to know it: He has tirelessly written, blogged, tweeted and podcast about every aspect of his life, including intimate details of his sexual relationship with his wife.
Smith was one of the first in the business to have a website and sell merchandise — pieces of film from his movies and action figures — to fans. But one source who has worked with him thinks Smith might be one of the first filmmakers to exploit and then be undone by social media, and that access to social media has eliminated any filter that might have protected Smith from emotional outbursts that, in this person’s view, have undermined his career.
Smith has expounded at length about the Sundance episode and its meaning on his podcast — or Smodcast, as he calls it. In a Jan. 31 email to THR, he added: “As per usual, the alarmist ninnies are out of sorts over nothing. What I’m doing is no attack on anything other than a weak economy that can’t sustain marketing dollars on movies like mine anymore — and even THEN, it’s not an attack so much as an alternative.”
That wording suggests Smith hopes to soften what played very much like an attack. But Sloss says the negative take — that Smith is unraveling — is diametrically wrong. Yes, the 40-year-old might have annoyed prospective distributors of any films he makes in the future (assuming his threat to retire after his next film is hollow), but Sloss thinks Smith’s need for those connections has diminished.
“Kevin Smith has 1.7 million followers on Twitter, and it’s not like Ashton Kutcher‘s followers,” Sloss says. “These people think about Kevin every day, and he cultivates them and they love him.” At this point, Smith has said he doesn’t need to work for anyone except his fans. As for his complaints about the film business, Sloss adds, “There’s a lot of truth to what he is saying, and everybody knows that.”
If the Sundance escapade inflicted serious damage on Smith’s standing in Hollywood, it wasn’t as though he was souring an otherwise-flourishing relationship with the industry. He has worked steadily but struggled intermittently for years, perhaps most publicly with the 2004 bomb Jersey Girl, which paired Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez at the most tabloid-worthy moments of their respective careers. With a budget of $35 million, it was Smith’s most expensive movie to that point. It grossed only $25.3 million domestically and became an object of ridicule. But two years later, Smith was at the Festival de Cannes with Clerks II, enjoying a prolonged standing ovation. The $5 million movie grossed $24.1 million domestically.
Smith was back with a comparatively big budget of about $25 million for his next movie, 2008’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and he landed Seth Rogen to play opposite Elizabeth Banks. Smith was convinced the film would grasp a piece of the raunchy-comedy box-office success that had flowed freely to Judd Apatow the previous year for Knocked Up. Some counseled that making a movie with the word “Porno” in the title would limit box-office potential, but Smith didn’t listen. Outrageousness was his trademark.
Perhaps its title doesn’t explain why Zack grossed a flaccid $31.5 million domestically. An associate says Smith bitterly blamed Harvey Weinstein for failing to spend enough to market the movie. Although Weinstein said he spent $30 million on marketing, Smith didn’t believe he had followed through. Either way, the relationship between the two frayed. (Weinstein did not respond to THR’s requests for comment.)
After Zack failed, a source says, Smith withdrew for weeks, “convinced he’d lost his touch.” Smith was even absent for a time from the digital space. “He had lived on the Internet, hours and hours a day,” the source says. “He wanted to know what people were saying about him. He stopped doing it after that.”
Smith’s next move was to take a more formulaic movie, directing material from the studio machine. A source says Smith figured Warner Bros. would spend generously to support Cop Out, a 2010 comedy starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, and that “no one would blame him if it didn’t work out.”
In an e-mail to THR, Smith says he took on Cop Out in part because his dad would have loved it and in part to learn about studio marketing.
“I’d seen 12 years of Miramax/Weinstein Co. marketing, but I wanted to see how ‘they’ did it across the street — especially [Warners marketing chief] Sue Kroll,” he wrote. “I wanted to work with her and pick her brain.” Smith says he took a major pay cut to do the film.
It seemed generous of Warners’ Jeff Robinov to give Smith the shot: Years earlier, after a pitch meeting didn’t go well, Smith had broadcast his opinion that Robinov was a balding studio clock-puncher.
Robinov says he thought Smith might succeed with Cop Out. “What Kevin needed was a script to tell the whole story,” he says. “I thought mostly the issue with Kevin’s movies was how the story held up.” In retrospect, Robinov adds, there were other problems in this instance, including the pressure of working with a relatively big budget (about $35 million) and, most of all, the personalities involved.
A talent representative with a connection to the project says there were awful conflicts on the set, notably between Smith and Willis. “He smokes way too much pot,” the talent rep says of Smith. “He sat behind his monitor. He didn’t interact with the actors. The actors felt they were on their own.”
Smith disputes these allegations. “I dealt with every actor who wanted to be dealt with on that set,” he wrote in an email. “If I was smoking so much weed, how did I manage to not only bring the film in on schedule but under budget? If I was supposedly so stoned, how could I shoot all day THEN edit the film myself all night?” Smith then rattled through a list of other activities that he engaged in during that period, concluding, “Yes — what a big, fat, lazy, unenthused stoner I must be.”
But Cop Out only grossed a so-so $55.5 million worldwide, and the fact that it wasn’t a Smith original didn’t inoculate him when the movie was panned. Smith was unhappy enough that as recently as last month he continued to vent his frustration, complaining on the podcast WTF With Marc Maron. Working with Willis had been “soul crushing,” Smith said, adding that the star failed to support the film. “A lot of people are gonna be like, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to blame the movie on him,’ ” Smith said. “I had no f—ing help from this dude whatsoever.”
Days before Cop Out was set to open last February, the infamous Southwest Airlines incident happened. Smith was ejected from a flight from Oakland to Burbank, supposedly because the pilot had decided he was a “safety risk” because — owing to his girth — Smith couldn’t put down his armrest. Naturally, Smith went straight to Twitter. “I know I’m fat, but was [the pilot] really justified in throwing me off a flight for which I was already seated?” he tweeted. “I saw someone bigger than me on THAT flight! But I wasn’t about to throw a fellow Fatty under the plane.”
Smith kept at it, tweeting a photo of himself on the plane, adding: “Look how fat I am on your plane! Quick! Throw me off!” When he arrived in Burbank on a later flight, Smith tweeted, “Don’t worry: wall of the plane was opened & I was airlifted out while Richard Simmons supervised.”
Despite the humor in his tweets, Smith was deeply affected by the incident — fearful, according to an associate, that he would be known from then on as the guy who was too fat to fly. He complained to the Los Angeles Times that the media had repaid his past openness by mocking him with fat jokes. “I have to say that the whole situation sickened me,” he said. “All I saw was hatred and snarkiness and cynicism.”
Smith scoffed at the idea that his tweets had turned the story into a viral phenomenon that attracted as much ridicule as sympathy. “That shows you how much the old media knows about today’s universe,” he said. “In the world of social media, where everyone has a cell-phone camera, this was gonna get out whether I wanted it to or not. So I’m not letting anyone tell the story but me.”
At this point, he acknowledges that the incident was painful but calls it a baptism by fire. “Maybe that happened so I could withstand the shit I’m taking now for an idea that isn’t even revolutionary,” he wrote to THR. “It’s simply indie rock.”
What’s not clear is whether the Sundance episode will turn into another source of distress or a triumphant declaration of true independence.
The challenges are clear. Smith says he is trimming Red State in the wake of mixed reviews. But even if it falls short, Smith already has his next film planned, and as long as someone in or near the industry thinks there might be money to be made, then Hollywood is a very forgiving place.
So while many in the industry might be allergic to Smith at this point, it’s impossible to say he couldn’t work on a studio film again if he really wanted. (He might seem to lack interest now, but a year ago, fresh off the experience on Cop Out, he said he’d do another studio movie “in a heartbeat.”)
Of course, Smith might not need to do another Hollywood movie: Red State was financed by private investors, and his indie cred survives among some fans. Sales agent Cassian Elwes, who is not involved with the project, says Smith’s ploy at Sundance was “brilliant” and “hilarious.” Although Smith “probably pissed off the studios who schlepped over to see the movie,” Elwes says, he “created a lot of hype and publicity about the movie, which is a good thing. And he can actually talk to audiences. He’s a household name; he’s using his celebrity in a smart way.”
Sloss agrees that Smith is an industry unto himself and a trailblazer in terms of unhooking the filmmaker from the industry machine. Smith can sell out a few thousand seats in theaters, at $65 a ticket, around the country and even around the world. “It’s easy on the surface to say he’s losing his mind,” Sloss says. “He’s an emotional guy, but that’s not what’s going on here. There’s a paradigm taking shape, and he’s one manifestation of it.”
Smith continues to tend his Internet flock in the aftermath of Sundance, and having lined up distribution consultant David Dinerstein along with Sloss and representatives at WME, he’s clearly keeping an eye on business. He’s selling tickets online for his Red State tour, kicking off March 5 in New York with subsequent stops from Atlanta to Minneapolis and Seattle to Boston.
According to Smith, his plan is realistic. “We’d be wasting money, advertising this to anybody but the audience that normally goes to see my flicks,” he wrote. “On this March tour, we could CLEAR a million bucks and change — and that’d be 25% of the budget back. Just in 15 or so single screenings. Why is that crazy?”
After the tour, Smith says he’ll release the film theatrically through his nascent label, Smodcast. And then Smith says he’s going to teach others to do what he does.
“If we can build Smodcast Pictures into a brand the way Harvey & Bob made the Miramax name stand for a specific kind of film — then it can become a kind of no-budget service label for flicks we feel fit our ethos or can’t find love elsewhere in the world,” Smith said in a tweet to his followers.
It’s a noble aim, but while Smith might have had the backing to muster $4 million for a movie and the following to assemble an audience with the click of a mouse, others don’t. At this point, it’s not even clear Smith can unhook himself from the Hollywood machine — much less that he’ll be able to free other aspiring filmmakers from their shackles.
ALL THE SMITH THAT’S FIT TO PRINT:
“It’s kinda boring,” Smith admitted of his 2007 book My Boring-Ass Life, in which he collected blog posts from SilentBobSpeaks.com. “Wake up,” reads a typical entry. “Take a shit while playing Tetris and update my online diary in my office ’til [wife] Jen gets up.” His fans loved it, though, so he reissued it two years later with added pages about the making of Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
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